Basilicata and Calabria Travel Guide
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More than any other Italian regions, Basilicata and Calabria represent the quintessence of the mezzogiorno, the historically underdeveloped southern tracts of the peninsula. After Unification in 1861, the area was largely neglected and sank into abject poverty that was worsened by emigration. Conditions here were immortalized in Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli–a vivid account of his internment during the Fascist era in which he describes a South characterized by apathy, where malaria is endemic andthe peasants’ way of life is deeply rooted in superstition. Things have improved, particularly in Basilicata, although tourism is yet to bring the riches found in neighbouring Puglia and Campania.
In Basilicata, the greatest draw is Matera, whose distinctive Sassi – cave-like dwellings in the heart of the town – give it a uniquely dramatic setting. In the northern part of the region, Melfi and Venosa are bastions of medieval charm with important relics from the Byzantine and Norman eras. Of the region’s two coasts, the mountainous Tyrrhenian is most engaging, with spots like Maratea offering crystal-clear water, a bustling marina, and opportunities to discover remote sea grottoes. The flatter Ionian coast is less charming, though worth a visit for its ancient sites in Metaponto and Policoro – ruins of the once mighty states that comprised Magna Graecia.
While conditions in Basilicata have improved, Calabria remains arguably more marginalized than it was before Unification. Since the war, a massive channelling of funds to finance huge irrigation and land-reclamation schemes, industrial development and a modern system of communications has brought built-up sprawl to previously isolated towns such as Crotone – often hand in hand with the forces of organized crime. The ’Ndrangheta Mafia – reckoned to be far more powerful and dangerous than the Neapolitan Camorra – continues to maintain a stranglehold across much of the region.
Although unchecked development financed by the ’Ndrangheta has marred parts of the coastline, resorts such as Scilla, Tropea and Capo Vaticano are still charming, and have become favourite hideaway resorts for discerning Italian and foreign visitors. The interior of the region is dominated by the mountain grandeur of the Pollino, Sila and Aspromonte ranges, offering excellent hiking and rustic local cuisine.
The cuisine of Basilicata, also known as cucina lucana (Lucanian cuisine), derives from a poor tradition that depended heavily on preserving food, especially pork and fruit, which are dried, and vegetables, which are preserved in oil. Arab influence still pervades in the form of aubergines and desserts incorporating figs, almonds and honey. Basilicata is an important producer of durum wheat, used to make fresh pasta, rustic breads prepared in wood-fired ovens, and friselle, stale bread softened with water, oil and tomatoes. Strong cheeses, like matured or smoked ricotta and aged caciocavallo are favoured. A rare breed of cow, the mucca podolica, grazes around Matera, and the milk and meat they produce are full of flavour.
The trademark of Calabrian cuisine is peperoncino, spicy chilli pepper, used liberally in many dishes, and thought to ward off illness and misfortune. Try the spicy sorpressata salami, ’Nduia, a hot peperoncino and pork fat spread. As in all southern cuisine, cheeses such as caciocavallo, mature provola and pecorino are ubiquitous. The cipolla rossa from Tropea is a sweet red onion used in rustic pies, meat dishes, and in sweet preserves called composte. For dessert, try mostazzolo, an almond cookie sweetened with honey or wine must, or anything containing bergamotto, a citrus fruit that grows along the south coast. Dried figs are popular stuffed, dipped in chocolate, or simply arranged in braids or wheels.
Cirò is the success story of Calabrian winemaking. Made from the ancient gaglioppo grape, it has been given some modern touches is now respected outside its home territory. Calabria also turns out sweet whites such as Greco di Bianco. The aglianico grape makes a star appearance in Basilicata: Aglianico del Vulture is the region’s only DOC; it’s been dubbed “the Barolo of the south” for its complexity, late ripening and long maturation. Other wines worth trying are the sweet, sparkling Malvasia and Moscato.
Way up in the northernmost reaches of Basilicata, in the foothills of the imposing Monte Vulture (1326m), the hill-town of Melfi was long a centre of strategic importance, taken by the Normans in 1041 and their first capital in the south of Italy. Repeatedly damaged by earthquakes, the town preserves an attractive historic centre with a formidable Norman castle that now holds a good museum.
If Melfi preserves the appearance of a dark medieval town, Venosa, 25km east, has an attractive airiness: a harmonious place surrounded by green rolling hills and neatly divided parcels of farmland. Known in antiquity as Venusia, it was in its time the largest colony in the Roman world, and is most famous today as the birthplace of the poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus – Orazio in Italian, and known to English speakers as Horace (65–8 BC). His supposed house lies off Via Vittorio Emanuele in the centro storico, where one large room shows a reconstruction of his living quarters, with a bed and kitchen utensils; free visits can be arranged through Associazione La Quadriga, around the corner at Via Frsuci 7.
A leisurely thirty-minute drive from Matera, Basilicata’s Ionian coast from Metaponto to Policoro consists of a mountainous interior backing onto a seaboard punctuated only by holiday resorts, a plethora of campsites – overflowing in the summer months – and some notable historical sites. Of these, the most significant are connected with the periods of Greek occupation, the most recent of which was that of the Byzantines who administered the area on and off for five hundred years.
The most extensively excavated of Baslicata’s Greek sites, Metaponto was settled in the eighth century BC and owed its subsequent prosperity to the fertility of the surrounding land – perfect for cereal production (symbolized by the ear of corn stamped on its coinage). In about 510 BC, Pythagoras, banished from Kroton, established a school here that contributed to an enduring philosophical tradition. Metapontum’s downfall came as a result of a series of catastrophes: absorbed by Rome, embroiled in the Punic Wars, sacked by the slave-rebel Spartacus, and later desolated by a combination of malaria and Saracen raids.
Metaponto today is a straggling, amorphous place, lacking much charm but with sandy beaches at Metaponto Lido that attract holiday-makers in summer. There’s a train station at Metaponto Scalo, and Metaponto Borgo, some 800m from Scalo and 3km northwest of Lido, has an important archeological museum, otherwise the place mostly consists of the huge archeological park and modern villas, apartments and hotels.
Twenty kilometres south of Metaponto, the area between the Sinni and Agri rivers was in its time one of the richest areas on this coast and site of the two Greek colonies of Siris and Herakleia. The latter was where Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, first introduced elephants to the Romans, and, although winning the first of two battles in 280 BC, suffered such high losses that he is said to have declared another such victory would cost him the war – so bequeathing to posterity the term “Pyrrhic victory”. The ruins of Herakleia are just behind the museum and although in a poor state, they’re worth a wander.
Straddling Basilicata and Calabria, the Parco Nazionale Pollino is one of Italy’s largest national parks, covering an area of nearly two thousand square kilometres. It is named for the Massiccio del Pollino, a massif in the southern Apennines that reaches a height of 2248m, offering spectacular views over pine forests, plains, limestone slopes, and beyond, to both the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas. That, and its other major peaks such as the Serra Dolcedorme (2267m), are best explored on organized hiking excursions aimed at seeking out the park’s rare flora and fauna which include the cuirassed pine (the park’s symbol), the roe deer and the golden eagle.
The park’s lower slopes are home to nearly sixty villages, best seen by car, as public transport connections are irregular. Near the park’s eastern boundary are several settlements – Acquaformosa, Civita, San Basile, San Costantino Albanese and San Paolo Albanese among them – founded between 1470 and 1540 by Albanian refugees fleeing persecution by the Turks. Here language, costume and religious customs have a decidedly eastern flavour.
From the western side, one logical gateway is Laino Borgo, just off the A3 autostrada, known for its Santuario delle Cappelle, fifteen chapels frescoed with scenes from the life of Christ. From here, it is a short drive to Laino Castello, an eerie medieval hamlet abandoned after an earthquake in the 1980s that holds commanding views over the Lao river valley.
The park’s limestone terrain is particularly susceptible to erosion, which gives rise to its many grottoes, including the Grotta del Romito in Papasidero. Many guided excursions depart to the Pollino massif from Papasidero, though the town itself is worth a stroll for its elaborately carved portals that precede churches and palazzi nobili.
The northern stretch of the Tyrrhenian coast in Calabria is peppered with holiday complexes that crowd the flat littoral. There are some attractive places to break the journey, notably the towns of Diamante, Belvedere and San Lucido.
South of the Savuto River the Piana di Sant’Eufemia plain is the narrowest part of the Calabrian peninsula, much of it reclaimed only in the last hundred years from malarial swamp: the mosquitoes remain but they no longer carry the disease. Heading south, past the high tableland of the Tropea promontory, the views grow ever more inspiring as the Autostrada del Sole winds round and through the mountains with glimpses of Sicily to the south.
Further around the promontory beyond Tropea, Capo Vaticano holds some of the area’s most popular beaches, including Grotticelle and Tonicello, both spacious enough to allow you to get away from the bustle.
As you head south along the coast, the proximity of Sicily becomes the dominant feature. This stretch of the autostrada can claim to be one of the most panoramic in Italy, burrowing high up through mountains with the Strait of Messina glittering below. Travelling by train or following the old coastal road, you pass through Scilla, with a fine sandy beach and lots of action in the summer. Known as Scylla in classical times, this was the legendary location of a six-headed cave monster, one of two hazards to mariners mentioned in the Odyssey, the other being the whirlpool Charybdis, corresponding to the modern Cariddi located 6km away on the other side of the strait. Crowning a hefty rock, a castle separates the main beach from the fishing village of Chianalea to the north.
Reggio Calabria was one of the first ancient Greek settlements on the Italian mainland; in recent years, it’s become synonymous with urban decline and the influence of the local mafia, or ’Ndrangheta, though foreign tourists are unlikely to come into contact with the city's seamier side. The most attractive areas are the long, mainly pedestrianized Corso Garibaldi – the venue for Calabria’s liveliest passeggiata – and the lungomare, the seafront esplanade that affords wonderful views of the Sicilian coastline and Mount Etna. At the southern end of the Corso, you can see remains of sixth-century-BC city walls and a Roman bathing complex. Just off the Corso lies Reggio’s Duomo, an airy building heavily restored after the 1908 earthquake. Reggio Calabria is also theend-point of the Cammino Basiliano, a long distant walking trail across calabria
Reggio's main draw, the Museo Nazionale is home to Calabria's most important collection of archeological finds in Calabria from the Hellenic period. Over five floors, the museum displays examples from all the major Greek sites in the region, including the famous pinakes or carved tablets from the sanctuary of Persephone at Locri. The biggest crowd-puller, however, is the Bronzi di Riace: two bronze statues dragged out of the Ionian Sea in 1972 near the village of Riace. These shapely examples of the highest period of Greek art (fifth century BC) are especially prized because there are so few finds from this period in such a good state of repair. Other rooms in the museum display items relating to daily life in Magna Graecia and to the indigenous cultures prior to the Greek settlement: there's also a panoramic roof terrace with a restaurant.
On the tip of Italy's boot, the great massif of Aspromonte is the last spur of the Apennines, where you can pass from the brilliant, almost tropical vegetation of the coast to dense forests of beech and pine that rise to nearly 2000m. Although it has been a national park since 1989, the thickly forested mountain is not an established tourist destination – mostly due to its reputation as the stronghold of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia. On top of this, the area remains virtually unsigned, and the oppressive tree cover rarely breaks to provide views. If you’re in a car, note the Strada Interotta (“Road interrupted”) signs at the entrances, and only attempt the rocky dirt tracks across the range in an off-road vehicle.
A boisterous fair takes place every year in Aspromonte on the first two days of September at the Santuario della Madonna di Polsi, a 10km hike from the park entrance. It’s an unashamedly pagan event that involves the sale and slaughter of large numbers of goats – the fair is also known to provide a convenient cover for the meeting of ’Ndrangheta cells from all over the world.
Covering the widest part of the Calabrian peninsula, the Sila massif, east of Cosenza, is more of an extensive plateau than a mountain range, though the peaks on its western flank reach heights of nearly 2000m. Protected by the Parco Nazionale della Sila, it’s divided into three main groups: the Sila Greca, Sila Grande and Sila Piccola, of which the Sila Grande is of most interest to tourists.
At one time the Sila was one huge forest and was exploited from earliest times to provide fuel and material for the construction of fleets, fortresses and even for church-building in Rome, resulting in a deforestation that helped bring about the malarial conditions that for centuries blighted much of Calabria. The cutting of trees is now strictly controlled, and ancient pines (the so-called Giganti della Sila), which can live for several hundred years, are among the region’s chief attractions. There’s plenty here, too, for the outdoors enthusiast: in summer the area provides relief from the heat of the towns, and in winter there’s downhill and cross-country skiing.
Camigliatello is a useful starting-point for a tough hike that takes in the area’s highest peaks, following the Strada delle Vette (“road of the peaks”) for 13km through pine- and beechwoods before forking off and up to the three peaks of Monte Scuro, Monte Curcio and, highest of all, Monte Botte Donato (1928m). The trail, which is often snowbound between December and May, continues down to Lago Arvo and the resort of Lorica, from where it’s a shorter distance than following the Strada delle Vette to Botte Donato. Or you can save the sweat and take the chair lift from Località Cavaliere, just outside town.
Calabria’s Ionian coast is a mainly flat sandy strip, sometimes monotonous but less developed than the Tyrrhenian side of the peninsula, and generally with cleaner seawater. At the border with Basilicata, mountainous slopes soon give way to the wide Piana di Sibari, the most extensive of the Calabrian coastal plains, bounded by Pollino to the north, the Sila Greca to the west and the Sila Grande in the south. The rivers flowing off these mountains, which for centuries kept the land well watered and rich, also helped to transform it into a stagnant, malarial mire, and although land reclamation has restored the area’s fertility, without visiting the museum and excavations at Sybaris you could pass through the area with no inkling of the civilization that once flourished on these shores. Southeast of here, the old Byzantine centre of Rossano and Crotone, another ancient Greek city, provide further interest as you travel along the coastline.
The southern part of Calabria’s Ionian seaboard is less developed than the rest of the region and less scenic, with a string of mostly unappealing seaside towns and villages. There are sandy beaches, though – either wild and unpopulated or, if you prefer, glitzy and brochure-style, as at Soverato. At Locri, you'll find the region’s best collection of Greek ruins and, overlooking the coast a short way inland, the craggy medieval strongholds of Squillace and Gerace.
South of Rossano lies an empty stretch of beach, with, inland, the vineyards of Ciro, the source of Calabria’s best-known wine. Crossing the River Neto into the fertile Marchesato region, you’ll find the approach to Crotone (the ancient Greek city of Kroton) blighted by a smoky industrial zone – not the most alluring entry into a city, but a rare thing in Calabria, and a reminder of the false hopes once vested in the industrialization of the region. In spite of this, Crotone today has a pleasant, unspoiled old centre and a great museum, and makes a good base for the beaches that spread to the south and for the Greek ruins at Capo Colonna.
The site of ancient Kroton has been entirely lost, but in its day this was among the most important colonial settlements of Magna Graecia, overshadowed by its more powerful neighbour Sybaris, but with a school of medicine famous throughout the classical world and closely linked with the prowess of the city’s athletes, who regularly scooped all the honours at the Olympic Games back in Greece. In 530 BC the mathematician and metaphysician Pythagoras took up residence in Kroton and it went on to be the foremost of the Greek cities in Calabria. However, increasingly destabilized by internal conflicts, the city was eventually destroyed by the Romans. A resurgence of sorts occurred in the thirteenth century when it was made the main town of the Marchesato region, a vast feudal domain held by the powerful Ruffo family of Catanzaro. But its prosperity was always hindered by the scourge of malaria, provoking the author George Gissing – himself a victim of malaria during his visit in 1897 – to condemn Crotone as “a squalid little town”.
Thirty kilometres down the coast from Sibari, Rossano was the foremost Byzantine centre in the south, and the focus of a veritable renaissance of literature, theology and art between the eighth and eleventh centuries, a period to which the town’s greatest treasures belong. These days, its coastal offshoot of Rossano Scalo (site of the train station) has far outstripped its inland parent in terms of size and bustle, and most of the holiday-makers who frequent its beaches never even get round to visiting the hilltop town, 7km up an awkward winding road – something that has helped to preserve the old centre from excessive development.
Behind the cathedral, the Museo Diocesano contains the famed codex purpureus Rossanensis, or Purple Codex, a unique sixth-century manuscript on reddish-purple parchment illustrating the life of Christ. The book, which was brought from Palestine by monks fleeing the Muslim invasions, is open at one page, but you can leaf through a copy and see, among other things, how the Last Supper was originally depicted, with Christ and his disciples not seated but reclining on cushions round the table, and all eating from the same plate.
On Calabria’s extreme eastern point, 11km south of Crotone, the famed column at Capo Colonna is a solitary remnant of a vast structure that served as the temple for all the Greeks in Calabria. Dedicated to Hera Lacinia, the temple originally possessed 48 of these Doric columns and was the repository of immense wealth before being repeatedly sacked as Magna Graecia and Hellenism itself declined.
There are some excellent bathing spots not far south of here. The Isola Capo Rizzuto is a spit of land, not an island, with a choice of sandy or rocky inlets to swim from. During the winter the resort is dead, but it can get quite congested in the height of summer and difficult to find a place to stay.
The town’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale holds the best collection of finds from Magna Graecia on the Ionian coast. Most noteworthy is the so-called Treasure of Hera Lacinia, a beautifully restored group of bronze statuettes – including a sphinx, a gorgon, a horse, a winged siren and a rare Nuraghic boat from Sardinia dating from the seventh to the fifth centuries BC. The most dazzling item is a gold diadem, expertly worked with garlands of leaves and sprigs of myrtle.
The inhabitants of Sybaris – said to number 100,000 – were so fond of luxury and their excesses so legendary that we derive the modern word sybaritic from their reputation. The city’s laws and institutions were apparently made to ensure the greatest comfort and wellbeing of its citizens, including the banning from the city of all noisy traders, such as metalworkers, and the planting of trees along every street for shade. Cooks were so highly prized that they were apparently bought and sold in the marketplace for great sums and were allowed to patent their recipes, while inventions ascribed to the Sybarites include pasta and the chamberpot. This was all too much for the Crotonians, who under their general Milo destroyed the city in 510 BC, diverting the waters of the river over the site to complete the job.